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Bloomgarden v. National Archives and Records Administration

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 26, 2018

HOWARD BLOOMGARDEN, Plaintiff
v.
NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          COLLEEN KOLLAR-KOTELLY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This lawsuit arises from a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request that Plaintiff Howard Bloomgarden made to Defendant National Archives and Records Administration (“NARA”). Plaintiff requested documents related to the 1995 termination of an Assistant United States Attorney (“AUSA”). In response to Plaintiff's FOIA request, Defendant identified three letters. Defendant eventually provided Plaintiff with one of the responsive letters but withheld the two remaining responsive letters, claiming that they fell under FOIA's Exemption 6 which protects “personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6). Plaintiff filed this suit, arguing that the two responsive letters are not exempt from FOIA. The parties have filed cross-motions for Summary Judgment on the issue of whether the two letters fall under Exemption 6 to FOIA.

         Upon consideration of the pleadings, [1] the relevant legal authorities, and the record as it currently stands, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and GRANTS Defendant's motion for summary judgment. The Court concludes that the letters are exempt from FOIA based on Exemption 6.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In his FOIA request, Plaintiff seeks to acquire letters regarding the potential misconduct and termination of former AUSA for the Eastern District of New York (“EDNY”) Raymond Granger. Plaintiff's FOIA request stems from a 1995 joint state-federal investigation into Plaintiff's possible involvement in criminal acts, which eventually lead to Plaintiff pleading guilty in the EDNY. Pl.'s Statement of Facts, ECF No. [13-2], 3. Mr. Granger was the lead prosecutor for the investigation. Id. at 2. But, Mr. Granger was removed from Plaintiff's case in 1995 and was soon thereafter terminated from his position with EDNY. Id. at 3.

         Plaintiff has requested the termination materials related to Mr. Granger based on the belief that the materials may show that Mr. Granger engaged in misconduct regarding certain proffers that Plaintiff made to the federal and Los Angeles County prosecutors when Mr. Granger was leading the investigation. Compl., ECF No. [1], ¶¶ 10-13. If the termination materials show misconduct on the part of Mr. Granger, Plaintiff intends to use such information to help his effort to get a new trial before the California state court, where he was convicted of murder in 2014. Pl.'s Statement of Facts, ECF No. [13-2], 3-4.

         As part of his strategy in the California case, in 2007, Plaintiff initiated his first FOIA request seeking documents relating to Mr. Granger's termination. Pl.'s Mot, ECF No. [13-3], 12. The Department of Justice, which was in possession of a draft termination letter and related documents, withheld the documents as exempt under FOIA. In 2012, Plaintiff initiated suit seeking disclosure of the documents. The court ordered the release of approximately 3, 600 pages of exhibits to the requested letter but concluded that the draft letter itself was exempt under FOIA. Id. at 12-13; see generally Bloomgarden v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 874 F.3d 757 (D.C. Cir. 2017).

         In 2013, Plaintiff initiated a new FOIA request, this time requesting from NARA documents related to Mr. Granger's termination. Pl.'s Statement of Facts, ECF No. [13-2], 4. Defendant indicated that three responsive letters had been found and that all three letters would be released to Plaintiff. Pl.'s Ex. DD, ECF No. [13-7], 78-79. But Defendant later explained that, upon further review, the letters were exempt from FOIA under Exemption 6. Id. at 80. The archivist who had initially agreed to release the letters had been newly hired, and after her supervisor reviewed the request, the supervisor determined that disclosure of the letters would cause an unwarranted invasion of Mr. Granger's personal privacy under Exemption 6. Dec. of Martha Wagner Murphy, ECF No. [12-2], Ex. G. Accordingly, Defendant refused to release the three letters. But, on administrative appeal, Defendant agreed to release one of the letters, finding that only two of the letters met the requirements of Exemption 6. Id.

         Plaintiff continues seeking disclosure of the two letters pertaining to Mr. Granger's termination from the U.S. Attorney's Office. In 2017, Plaintiff brought action in this Court, asking the Court to conclude that Exemption 6 is inapplicable because the release of the letters would not result in a clearly unwarranted invasion of Mr. Granger's privacy. Both parties have moved for summary judgment.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Congress enacted FOIA to “pierce the veil of administrative secrecy and to open agency action to the light of public scrutiny.” Dep't of the Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 361 (1976) (citation omitted). Congress remained sensitive to the need to achieve balance between these objectives and the potential that “legitimate governmental and private interests could be harmed by release of certain types of information.” FBI v. Abramson, 456 U.S. 615, 621 (1982). To that end, FOIA “requires federal agencies to make Government records available to the public, subject to nine exemptions.” Milner v. Dep't of Navy, 562 U.S. 562, 562 (2011). Ultimately, “disclosure, not secrecy, is the dominant objective of the Act.” Rose, 425 U.S. at 361. For this reason, the “exemptions are explicitly made exclusive, and must be narrowly construed.” Milner, 562 U.S. at 565 (citations omitted).

         When presented with a motion for summary judgment in this context, the district court must conduct a “de novo” review of the record, which requires the court to “ascertain whether the agency has sustained its burden of demonstrating the documents requested are ... exempt from disclosure under the FOIA.” Multi Ag Media LLC v. U.S. Dep't of Agriculture, 515 F.3d 1224, 1227 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (citation omitted). The burden is on the agency to justify its response to the plaintiff's request. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B). “An agency may sustain its burden by means of affidavits, but only if they contain reasonable specificity of detail rather than merely conclusory statements, and if they are not called into question by contradictory evidence in the record or by evidence of agency bad faith.” Multi Ag Media, 515 F.3d at 1227 (citation omitted). “If an agency's affidavit describes the justifications for withholding the information with specific detail, demonstrates that the information withheld logically falls within the claimed exemption, and is not contradicted by contrary evidence in the record or by evidence of the agency's bad faith, then summary judgment is warranted on the basis of the affidavit alone.” Am. Civil Liberties Union v. U.S. Dep't of Defense, 628 F.3d 612, 619 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (citations omitted). “Uncontradicted, plausible affidavits showing reasonable specificity and a logical relation to the exemption are likely to prevail.” Ancient Coin Collectors Guild v. U.S. Dep't of State, 641 F.3d 504, 509 (D.C. Cir. 2011). Summary judgment is proper when the pleadings, the discovery materials on file, and any affidavits or declarations “show[ ] that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff does not challenge the adequacy of Defendant's search for responsive records to Plaintiff's FOIA request. As such, the sole issue before the Court is whether the two, undisclosed letters regarding the termination of Mr. Granger from the U.S. Attorney's Office fall under FOIA Exemption 6. The Court has reviewed the two letters in camera. Considering the arguments of the parties, as well as the Court's ...


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